Social Media and Civic Engagement

18 January 2010

The British magazine Prospect featured a debate this month between Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky about the advantage — or danger — the Web brings to global politics, civic life and the pursuit of such values as freedom, liberty and democracy.

These two examples capture the differing points of view of the two debaters:

First to Clay Shirky:

Nevertheless, I want to defend the notion—which Morozov goes after in the “man most responsible for intellectual confusion” section of his essay—that social media improves political information cascades, as outlined by the political scientist Susanne Lohmann. It also represents a new dynamic within political protest, which will alter the struggle between insurrectionists and the state, even if the state wins in any given clash. Where this will lead to a net advantage for popular uprisings in authoritarian regimes is an open question—and a point on which Morozov and I still disagree on—but the new circumstances of coordinated public action, I believe, marks an essential change in the civilian part of the “arms race.”

Now for Mr. Morozov’s rebuttal:

One possible reading of the current situation on the ground in Tehran is that, despite all the political mobilisation facilitated by social media, the Iranian government has not only survived, but has, in fact, become even more authoritarian. The changes currently taking place in Iran are far from positive: a catastrophic brain drain triggered by the recent political repressions, a series of violent crackdowns on politically active university students who have chosen to remain in the country, the persecution of critical bloggers, journalists and editors, the appointment of more conservative ministers to the government, and mounting pressure on dissident politicians. From this perspective, the last six months could be taken to reveal the impotence of decentralised movements in the face of a ruthless authoritarian state—even when those movements are armed with modern protest tools.

I am on Mr. Shirky’s side in this debate; as, I suspect, would be New York Times journalist, and Iranian exile, Nazila Fathi who wrote yesterday that “Protest was not about to die in Iran. Neither was news about it, nor our part in telling the story. Three things have made all the difference: the global reach of the Internet; the networking skills of exiled journalists and our sources; and the resourcefulness of Iran’s dissidents in sending information and images out.”

Shirky’s premise is that we are witnessing a fundamental shift in what he calls civic life. The demos is choosing more and more to play out civic life, and to participate in communities and the politics of their nations, through social media — Twitter, Facebook, blogs, mobile chats and hundreds of social networks. The effectiveness of these social media today in toppling regimes, or the fascist backlash that sometimes result as Morozov points out, from this digital engagement, is not the crux of the matter.

The question should be: Is the existence of social media changing what we mean by civic life, and how we discuss politics, organize civic action and combat despotic regimes? The answer is yes, and political thugs and petty autocrats should be taking note.

In Canada where the government prorogued parliament for what some felt were cynical and partisan reasons, civic opposition took the form initially in the creation of an anti-prorogation Facebook group. The group offered no suggestions for effective action, just a way to express outrage at what they apparently felt was a haughty political manoeuvre.

But almost 200,000 people have taken the time to identify themselves as opposing what some called a “sad day for Canadian democracy“.  ‘Question authority’ as the slogan from the 1960s urged of us, and they are. Is it enough to change the governing party’s mind? Not likely given it’s reputation, deserved or otherwise, for being opaque and distant and proud of it .

However, to continue with the 1960’s metaphor, ’somethin’s happening here and what it is is EXACTLY clear’ (Buffalo Springfield song for those who weren’t around). Nearly 200,000 people have taken a step to make their feelings known . . . and in a public way that six or seven years ago would have been impossible.

People in democracies and those suffering under authoritarian regimes are channeling their impatience, indignation and anger through social networks. They are coalescing their opposition in groups mediated through these networks.

And both are just a step away from direct civic engagement and action.

Canadian social media wiki needs your love

16 January 2010

share the love Pictures, Images and PhotosSince I created the Canadian social media wiki in late 2008 there have been 57 organizations who have shared their social media work and examples with the larger community.

These examples are invaluable.  Sharing our work means that we can learn from each other, share another Canadian example with our clients and colleagues and improve our own offerings by seeing how our friends in the social media community has tackled a similar challenge or used a social media tool in a new and different way.

What worries me is that there are a load more examples that aren’t getting up on this space.  My buddies at a variety of agencies are living this stuff day in and day out.  Frankly, I’m not seeing enough examples from you guys (and you know who you are.) I know how busy it is in the agency business, but I also know that there is some great work being done out there that’s not being shared.

I’m hoping that it’s workload and other priorities like being swamped by all those client demands and new business pitches that’s keeping you all from posting your examples.  I sure hope it’s not a feeling of inter-agency competitiveness that’s keeping some from posting their work out of fear of giving away something good or feeling that there work will be criticized.

We may be competing, but we’re all part of the same social media community.

(I’m also pretty sure that lots of people don’t know about the wiki, so tell your friends.  Everyone’s welcome!)

A Year in Five Social Media Movements

04 January 2010

Reports on social media trends in 2009 are ubiquitous — here’s one of the most useful lists from Adam Vincenzini in The Comms Corner — as are cogitative posts about what to expect in 2010 like that by David Armano blogging at the Harvard Business Review.

My assessment of what mattered last year is shorter and more personal, and I am too deferential to the forecasting abilities of others to speculate on 2010:

  1. Many words, occasional invective and a lot of social media blood were spilled over the demise of newspapers and its effect on journalism and those who practice it within the historical news delivery infrastructure. I weighed in often enough because I believe there is a radical shift in the sources of reporting, the formation of public opinion through communication, and the opportunity for individuals and groups, when motivated, to work around the traditional news infrastructure to exchange information, ideas and opinion for social change and political purposes.  The critical words on this issue in Canada may have been spoken by The Supreme Court of Canada. In late December its ruling on responsible communication made it clear that such communication is not just the province of journalists, but of anyone engaged in public communication including bloggers  As David Eaves so eloquently summed it up in his post “The ruling acknowledges that we are all now journalists and that we need a legal regime that recognizes this reality.”
  2. During the Iran elections in June 2009, Twitter became the means for getting images and news out about the repression of democratic protest. Recognizing that Twitter was a tool by which people in Iran were communicating with each other, and the world outside, even the U.S. State Department asked Twitter to delay its scheduled maintenance outage in order not to impede the flow of information. In my view, this was the single event that brought Twitter naysayers to heel, especially cynical journalists. News was being reported by citizens through a social network that some silly luddite columnists (still) see as “little more than the glorification of self indulgent trivia”. (Martin Vander Weyer in The Spectator, January 2, 2010).
  3. Speaking of reality, it is now being augmented in ways that are mind boggling. Augmented reality refers to the overlay of the virtual on the real. As explained by Ben Parr last August “These applications combine virtual data into the physical real world by utilizing the iPhone 3GS or an Android phone’s compass, camera, and GPS system. The result is that you can see things like the location of Twitter users and local restaurants in the physical world, even if they are miles away.” While excitement has been focused on fun apps like being able to wave your iPhone or Android in the air and find the nearest pubs, there are obviously hundreds of other uses, especially for product seeding . . . about which I know nothing. As for reputation management, corporate communications or issue identification and control, well, I’m not sure.
  4. I am a little surprised that Google’s Sidewiki has become a non-story. At first blush, it seemed to have the potential to be a game shifter in how people interact with web content about which they have strong opinions, pro or con. It may be that social networks are already platforms for interaction about web content and Sidwiki in the context of opinionated and criticism-friendly social networks is simply redundant.
  5. As a consultant over the past couple of years, I have been recommending social media strategies as pivotal in the success of reputation management programs largely because they are community (or affinity) rather than media focused. Clients are buying into it. But the conversations I’ve been having with companies over the last few months lead me to think we are at a social media tipping point (no, I have not read Mr. Gladwell’s epnymous book). According to the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts, “Social media is mainstream. Forty-three percent of Inc. 500 companies consider social media important to their business, with 91 percent of Inc. 500 companies employing at least one tool in 2009.” Employing one tool, however, is not a strategy and many companies and organizations are recognizing that the one-off Facebook page or Twitter handle isn’t giving them traction, nor will it. They’ll want — or should be wanting — the full game plan.

So, I lied: Number five is a 2010 forecast.

Newspapers as Niche News Providers

09 December 2009

This post by Jim Horton at Online Public Relations Thoughts makes an interesting follow-on to my last post on the decline of newspapers.

The story Mr. Horton references adds even more evidence of the print implosion going on. But his point that “newspapers are fast becoming a niche medium” is the one that hits home: (This is the full text of his post.)

“This is interesting. Newspapers have finally recognized that they are no longer mass media and are cutting back to a core of readers willing to pay for the paper daily. In other words, newspapers are fast becoming a niche medium, no longer powerful but catering to what is probably an older crowd. This means, of course, that newsrooms will continue to shrink and coverage as well until a balance between cost and revenue is achieved. The hard task for newspapers is not to cut too much. The New York Times, for example, is in the middle of newsroom buyouts and lost some of its well-known business reporters in the last few days. Who will replace them? No one.

In PR, we have seen this coming for a couple of years and as practitioners we have been shifting away from newspapers for some time. The problem is that in some areas like business news, there is nowhere else to go. There are no independent blog sites for business news that have become prominent like Politico for political news. Business news blog sites are associated with the same mainstream media that are cutting back. It is a challenge for corporate PR that will only become larger.”

There is a shortage of reliable and trustworthy social media alternatives for business news and analysis. Yes, there are dozens of financial and market-watching blogs, online newsletters for the investment industry, and an assortment of kvetchers, but as far as I know no credible news alternatives to the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times of London or the New York Times business pages (at least for the time being).

Until that gap is filled, it will be difficult to convince some organizations of the value of social media-driven communications strategies, although as Mr. Horton points out there may be little choice if business reporters become extinct.

Get your head in the Olympics with Podium Pals

02 December 2009

The team at H&K Digital has been working on this little bit of Olympic fun for the Canadian Olympic Committee to get everyone excited about Painting the Town Red for the upcoming Vancouver Olympics.

Pick your sport, pick your photo and through the magic of the Interwebs you’re an Olympian!  You can share your Olympic you on Facebook, make versions of your friends and post to their Facebook walls or download to your PC for e-mailing or desktop wallpaper. Try it out and let me know what you think.

Web: or


Print Backsliding – Cause for Worry?

30 November 2009

It’s maybe time to close the book on the reality of the decline in newspapers and get on with the argument about the hole it leaves, or doesn’t. The latest is summarized in a blog post on Reflections of a Newsosaur aptly called “Carnage continued in Q3 newspaper sales”

“Continuing 14 straight quarters of mostly accelerating declines, total print advertising in the third period fell a bit less than 29% to $5.8 billion. Interactive advertising sales, which the industry once hoped would be its salvation, dropped nearly 17% in the third quarter to $623 million, marking the sixth quarter in a row of declines in this crucial category.”

This is stark evidence that in spite of industry claims to the contrary the legacy media infrastructure is, like Marx’s hope for the State, simply withering away, and the end point of the decline isn’t yet in sight.

It is what it is and there is likely no going back, even if I share the angst the diminution occasions. The important discussion now is what should be saved and how. In spite of the stupidity of much of today’s ‘entertainews’ , we still need columnists like the Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson who keeps the current Canadian governing party in his sights and calls it out for every mendacious and insensitive word and act, which keeps him busy.  Democracy ought to have a vigorous fourth estate. Or, at least, it cant do without wise, critical, often cantankerous, always careful sentinels.

But let’s be clear about a few things:

  1. The disappearance of print vehicles isn’t the same thing as a flight from the consumption of news and information. People today are consuming more information and news than they ever have in the past. A lot of it is junk like and Perez Hilton’s blog. (Then again, there have always been gossip, scandal, heartbreak and blood-first news books.) But it can’t be denied that the rate of taking in news, facts and opinion is, in fact, going up.
  2. People are finding niche and important-to-them information, arguing with it, deep diving into it when it concerns them or affects their lives, and forming into groups when the news or chicanery requires action. There may be, to quote the ‘Internationale’ (there is a theme here you can tell) “a better world in birth.”

I am in the camp which thinks the new substructure already exists for a strong new ‘estate’ of inventive, articulate (even if their metier is the image), critical guardians of democracy and its breeches. All the cream hasn’t yet risen to the top as it has in print and television commentary. But there are beachheads, in Canada anyway, with the likes of David Eaves or some of the writers at the online newspaper The Tyee and, occasionally, The Torontoist.

So, there is no cause for worry because, as a recent article by David Carr concludes:

Somewhere down in the Flatiron, out in Brooklyn, over in Queens or up in Harlem, cabals of bright young things are watching all the disruption with more than an academic interest. Their tiny netbooks and iPhones, which serve as portals to the cloud, contain more informational firepower than entire newsrooms possessed just two decades ago. And they are ginning content from their audiences in the form of social media or finding ways of making ambient information more useful.

Everything you wanted to know about lobbying in 2 minutes

30 November 2009

My colleague, Olivier Baillou, put together this light-hearted video to explain exactly why organizations hire government relations/public affairs/lobbying firms.  If you can’t tell from the way the video’s produced, Oliver’s a bit of a visual communications nut.  Check out his blog for more of his thoughts on how visuals get ideas across.

WaterfronToronto case study: 2009 SNCR social media measurement innovation award

20 November 2009

As I mentioned in my earlier post, H&K Digital’s Toronto team was fortunate to have won a couple of awards of merit from the Society of New Communications Research recently. 

The first award I want to highlight is our online influencer analysis work for WaterfronToronto.  I’ve published our entire SNCR case study submission below for your reading pleasure, but here are a few highlights:


  1. Benchmark the conversations about WaterfronToronto over a set time period.
  2. Idenfity WaterfronToronto’s top online influencers.


  1. We used Sysomos Map to identify online conversations in both independent and media blogs
  2. The conversations were reviewed by our analysts to check sentiment and relevance
  3. Relevant and influential bloggers were identified based on the appropriate WaterfronToronto topic i.e. Sustainable Development, Public Transportation, etc.


  1. Bloggers’ potential interest in WaterfronToronto topics and their likelihood of being interested in being contacted by WaterfronToronto was determined.
  2. This information is being used in blogger outreach efforts and in the creation of WaterfronToronto’s social media-enabled newsroom

The entire report, which comes in at 60+ pages, is confidential, but here’s a list of the type of information we collected through the Sysomos Map tool and our own analysis that provided the meat of our blog-by-blog analysis.

  • Topic relevance
  • Posting frequency
  • Average comment count
  • Sentiment
  • Number of Inlinks
  • Blog influence network: top blogs that link in/out
  • Delicious Links and top tags
  • Top entities mentioned
  • Share of voice for relevant WaterfronToronto topics

I’m not in any hurry to try and boil this stuff down to an algorithm.  Each blog is evaluated on its own merits.  The above items are things we take into consideration as we make our analysis and are open to interpretation and discussion.  After all, we’re dealing with people here, not numbers.  We’re going for relevance over ranking.

Below is our SNCR submission. All of the 2009 Society for New Communicatons Research Awards case studies are available at

WaterfronToronto Measurement Case Study – SNCR Merit 2009


CSR and Social Media

20 November 2009

Companies have an ambivalent relationship with corporate social responsibility. To the extent that CSR involves commitment to compliance, environmental targets, strategic philanthropy, annual reporting and some level of stakeholder engagement, it is comfortable or at least acceptable as a risk mitigation strategy.

However, most CSR programs are starved of what Canadian Business For Social Responsibility (CBSR) calls the truly ‘transformational’, what I like to think of as the broader promises for accountable behaviour, transparency, community-building and dialogue (the “art of thinking together” – William Issacs). This is not to say this is for every company either easy or even desirable. Some industries and service sectors, whose products simply use up non-renewable resources, will never achieve anything even close to social assent.

Here’s one idea though for companies who want to do a little more than the routine CSR hygiene activities: Explore the possibility that people may want to talk with you about what you are doing. The most productive way of doing that today is through social media. Although the risk-benefit ratio is a little higher than, say, hand-picking a stakeholder advisory panel to advise on your CSR report, the upside of creating or, better, joining social media platforms — in knowledge-gained and friends made — is worth it.

Some recent writings that throw a little light on what’s possible:

  • At ‘Reimaging CSR’, Jessica Stannard-Friel provides a summary of recent discussion about the part that a social media strategy can play in ratcheting up the impact of CSR in organizations. Ms Stannard-Friel herself is an observant commenter on CSR trends.
  • An article in Fast Company looks at how an American bank is using crowdsourcing to select the beneficiaries of its strategic philanthropy program.
  • Melissa Rowley at Mashable gives three good reasons for using social media as part of a company’s CSR program . . . “getting to know your constituents”, “influencing customers as citizens”, and “getting your good work out there”.

H&K wins a pair of 2009 SNCR social media awards

14 November 2009

The social media strategy group at Hill & Knowlton Canada was thrilled to get the news that we had received two awards of merit from the Society for New Communications Research at its recent awards gala at Harvard.

Our influencer analysis work for WaterfronToronto was selected in the measurement innovation category and our successful work with War Child Canada on the Help Child Soldiers Fight campaign in the influencer relations category. 

These will go nicely on the H&K mantle along with the SNCR award of excellence we won last year with Molson Coors Canada on Brew 2.0.  Congrats to our clients and our team.

I’ll post our winning submissions separately over the next few days and try to provide a few more insights into what we did.